An Overview of Japanese Green Tea: History, Benefits, and More

A big part of one’s trip to Japan will consist of eating. Food is one of the defining aspects of the Japanese culture and is, undoubtedly, one of the most enjoyable. Tourists heading to the Land of the Rising Sun should be prepared for a unique gastronomical adventure but should remember to limit their intake to avoid upsetting their stomachs. However, with the country’s mouthwatering cuisine, that may be quite a challenge. Luckily, another vital part of the Japanese food culture said to aid in digestion and provide numerous health benefits, is a drink served almost anywhere – tea.

History of Japanese Green Tea and Tea Ceremony

During the Nara Period, tea was considered as a luxury item and was only available to priests and noblemen. It only came in small quantities and primarily served as a medicinal drink. Fast forward to the start of the Kamakura Period, the Chinese custom of making tea found its way to the country thanks to Eisai, the father of Japanese Zen Buddhism. The practice made use of powdered leaves and soon spread like wildfire across Japan, igniting tea cultivation particularly in the Uji area.

By the Muromachi Period, tea had become so popular and accessible to all the social classes that communities would gather for large tea drinking parties and games. A common activity consisted of passing around cups of tea and guessing the drink’s kind and origin. For the affluent, showcasing their prized tea set collections to one another was a more popular form of interest.

It was from these activities that Chanoyu, the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, was developed. Incorporating the Zen beliefs on simplicity, spirituality, and etiquette, the lively and big gatherings were refined to be intimate get-togethers where a host would serve tea to the others.

The cultural activity is also known as The Way of Tea and primarily focuses on the proper preparation and serving of powdered tea, or matcha. The ceremony can be classified as an informal one, called chakai, or a formal one, called chaji. The former follows a relatively simple show of hospitality and includes light snacks while the latter follows a strict process flow that can last up to four hours and includes a full-course meal.

Health Benefits of Drinking Japanese Green Tea

As briefly mentioned before, Japanese green tea can be quite beneficial to one’s health. It consists of catechins, caffeine, y-amino butyric acid, flavonoids, polysaccharide, fluoride, tannin, and vitamins B, C, and E. These components each have their own functions but collectively help in inhibiting cell mutation, preventing high blood pressure and stroke, and fighting cavity and bad breath.

However, the phrase “Too much of anything is bad” also applies to Japanese green tea. For those who are sensitive to caffeine or have insomnia, drinking the beverage in large quantities per day might be too much to handle. Excessive amounts of tea may also cause a change in one’s absorption of iron.

It may be tempting to drink the beverage as much as possible while touring Japan, but tourists are advised to only have it in between meals. Overall, the benefits of green tea outweigh the risks, but if drank like water, of course, the probabilities increase. To fully maximize the advantages of the drink, a limit of four cups per day should be observed.

The Different Types of Japanese Green Tea

Japan produces hundreds of tea types and grades. These leaves differ in their cultivation processes, textures, tastes, and aromas. Some of the most common Japanese green tea variants are:

  1. Ryokucha
    Ryokucha refers to the different grades of green tea cultivated under direct sunlight and harvested at different times of the year. The amount of sunlight each kind gets is what categorizes it into the following:
    • Gyokuro
      Gyokuro is considered as the highest grade of green tea. During the last month before the leaves are harvested, they are covered by shade to prevent the L-Theanine, an amino acid component, from turning into Catechines, the component that gives tea its bitter taste. This results into a sweet-tasting tea that leaves a calming effect on the consumer.
    • Sencha
      Sencha, on the other hand, is fully grown under the sun and is the most popular type of green tea in Japan. It has its own subcategories differentiated by taste, quality, and pricing; the two most popular grades of Sencha are:
      1. Asamushi Sencha
        Asamushi Sencha is referred to as the traditional noble tea as the leaves are steamed for a short amount of time only. The end product requires a delicate and traditional method of preparing tea, making it a high-grade type of Sencha. 
      2. Fukumushi Sencha
        Fukumushi Sencha is referred to as the modern Sencha tea as the leaves are steamed for a long amount of time, almost twice as long as that of Asamushi Sencha. This results in a powder-like product that dissolves when brewed. It is easier to prepare and gives a less bitter taste than Asamushi Sencha. 
    • Bancha
      Bancha is picked during the later periods after the Sencha harvesting season and is considered as the lowest grade of tea.
  2. Genmaicha
    Genmaicha refers to green tea mixed with Genmai, or roasted brown rice. The tea produced from this kind is yellowish in color and is often served as an alternative to the usual green tea. It has a nutty taste with subtle hints of sweet and toasted flavors.
  3. Hojicha or Houjicha
    Hojicha or houjicha refers to roasted green tea leaves that produce a reddish-brown tea. The roasting process gives it a unique taste and lowers its caffeine and tannin content. This type of tea is recommended for children and the elderly.
  4. Kukicha
    Kukicha refers to green tea stems, sticks, and stalks. It consists of four different kinds of twigs derived from Gyokuro and Sencha production. The resulting tea is light in color and has a nutty and creamy flavor. It has very low caffeine content and is recommended for calming one’s nerves and stomach.
  5. Matcha
    Matcha refers to powdered green tea. It makes use of only high-quality leaves which are dried then milled to create a fine powder. This type of green tea is very popular in Japan and is the key element in Chanoyu.

Japanese Green Tea: Organic vs Powder

The kind of Japanese green tea people should drink varies on their own preferences in taste and aroma. However, in terms of benefits, some may be more suitable than the others. It will take a rather detailed explanation about each green tea type’s composition to fully comprehend their functions but just being able to understand the difference between organic, whole-leaf tea and powdered tea is enough for tourists visiting Japan.

It has become common sense that consuming anything whole will provide one with all the nutritional values present in the product. Many matcha sellers have used this to promote the idea that powdered green tea has more antioxidants, specifically 137 times more, than organic green tea. This figure comes from a study done by the University of Colorado back in 2003 but is a bit flawed as it compared low-quality green tea and high-quality matcha.

The truth of the matter is, there is no actual evidence to support that being able to consume the leaves along with the tea is better than just drinking the tea infused from it. Figuring out which is better basically just depends on personal choice. Interestingly, some reasons or theories considered by people around the world when choosing between loose leaf and powdered tea include:

  • The insoluble components of tea leaves are made of proteins, carbohydrates, and fibers that contain a limited nutritional value. The Chinese believe this to be harmful.
  • Tea leaves may be infused as many times as possible until the produced tea reaches a state where it already tastes bland. By doing this, one can extract every bit of the leaves’ nutritional components.
  • Powdered tea may contain contaminants from the soil and water its plant was exposed to.

List of Popular Japanese Green Tea Brands

 The reasons stated above put matcha in a bad light, but tourists should not immediately dismiss the product and still give it a try. Organic and powdered tea all come from the same raw ingredients and just differ in the process they undergo. Majority of the powdered tea frowned upon by consumers consists of low-grade tea leaves mixed with small amounts of high-grade tea leaves. For example, in the West, a lot of the matcha available for sale are made of fibrous leaves and includes the tea plant’s stems and veins. These products often have sugar added to mask its bitter taste and lack of flavor.

To be able to fully appreciate Japanese green tea, consumers should focus their research on the tea leaves or powder that are actually of high-quality. Some popular brands include:

  1. Fukujuen
    Fukujuen originally focused on wood for their business but soon sold green tea as well. They are the makers behind Suntory lyemon, one of Japan’s best-selling bottled green tea. 
  2. Ippodo
    Ippodo started exporting Japanese green tea to the United Stated during the Meiji Period. They are one of Japan’s most prestigious tea cultivators and are admired by many tea experts around the world. Tourists may want to pay a visit to their store in Kyoto or Tokyo for a few seminars on making tea.
  3. Giontsujiri
    Giontsujiri is among Japan’s most exclusive tea brands and specializes in Uji cha, a kind of green tea primarily produced in Uji, Kyoto. 
  4. Itohkyuemon
    Itohkyuemon started selling tea in 1832. Their tea blends offer refreshing and smooth tastes that are not too bitter or too sweet.

Proper Japanese Green Tea Preparation: Alternatives to the Traditional Tea Pot / Tea Set

For foreigners who want to brew their own tea at home using loose leaf Japanese green tea, there are a couple of things to note to be able to achieve authenticity.

The usual equipment used for preparing tea in Japan includes a tea caddy, a hemp cloth, a whisk, a tea scoop, a tea bowl, and an iron pot. These are, of course, vital parts of the Chanoyu, and are not all necessary for home brewing.

Buying a brand new Japanese teapot is not required, but it is ideal as it makes use of a nylon or wire mesh to efficiently infuse tea leaves. If unavailable, an ordinary teapot will do just fine. A separate strainer can, instead, be used to remove the leaves upon serving.

After acquiring a suitable pot and strainer, the matter of actually brewing the tea is left. Three main factors play vital roles in the taste of the resulting tea:

  1. Water Temperature
    As a general rule, the temperature of the water used for brewing tea should be 80ᵒ C. However, it is important to note that different grades and types of tea may require lower or higher temperatures. Also, hotter water will result in a stronger-tasting tea.
  2. Tea Leaves / Water Ratio
    Using more tea leaves will produce a cup of tea with a stronger taste. The standard ratio is to use 2 teaspoons, or 5 grams, per 220 mL of water, but, again, this varies for different tea types and grades.
  3. Brewing Time
    The longer tea leaves are brewed, the more bitter the resulting tea will be. The brewing time dictates the amount of tannin and caffeine components allowed to escape into the water.

The standard guide for brewing the different kinds of tea is as follows:

  • Gyokuro: 8 grams per 125 mL at 40 - 60ᵒ C for 2 - 3 minutes
  • Asamushi Sencha: 5 grams per 230 mL at 80ᵒ C for 1 minute
  • Fukumushi Sencha: 5 grams per 230 mL at 70ᵒ for 30 seconds
  • Genmaicha: 5 grams per 230 mL at 85ᵒ C for 30 seconds
  • Hojicha: 7 grams per 230 mL at 95ᵒ C for 30 seconds
  • Kukicha: 7 grams per 230 mL at 85ᵒ C for 30 seconds

Matcha tea preparation is slightly different and the amount of powder will depend on one’s preference on taste. It is important, though, to have the water temperature at 70 - 80ᵒ C. One can then whisk it to produce a frothy tea or simply stir it for a thinner consistency.

Using Japanese Green Tea To Make Dessert

Japanese Green Tea, particularly matcha, can also be used to make different desserts. It serves as a great additive to almost any dessert recipe, the most common ones being:

  1. Ice Cream
    As opposed to typical flavors, matcha ice cream does not overshadow its basic flavor with tons of sugar. It is one of the most common dessert variants of matcha, in and out of Japan.
  2. Pancakes / Crepes
    Pancakes and crepes are common breakfast meals and adding matcha to their batter will provide a substantial dose of antioxidants and caffeine in the morning. 
  3. Pudding
    Pudding is a fairly easy snack that offers unlimited opportunities for modification. Its sweetness is a great contrast to the slightly bitter and grassy taste of matcha. 
  4. Smoothie
    Matcha’s ability to provide a subtle caffeine boost and sense of alertness makes it a great addition to pre-workout smoothies or shakes. The powder’s taste is complemented well by milk and vanilla-flavored beverages.
  5. Muffins
    Matcha muffins come in a lovely shade of green and are perfect for breakfast meals or mid-day snacks. They are rich in protein, antioxidants, and fiber and are a healthier alternative to regular muffins.

List of Japanese Green Tea Dessert Cafes in Tokyo

For tourists looking to appreciate Japanese green tea as more than a beverage, these local cafes offer a variety of desserts that use matcha:

  1. Saryo Tsujiri Daimaru Tokyo
    Saryo Tsujiri Daimaru Tokyo serves a wide variety of matcha parfait desserts (¥1,400). The dessert is topped with high-quality Uji matcha ice cream. Other highly recommended desserts available at their stores include matcha mousse and matcha jelly.
  2. Kinozen
    Kinozen offers a selection of traditional Japanese jelly cubes served with dry fruits or hot red bean soup. Their popular matcha option is called the Matcha Babaroa (900) and is a mousse type of dessert with a whip cream topping and red bean paste on the side.
  3. Chachanoma
    Chachanoma is very passionate about matcha and has a well-trained team of staff that puts extra care into their products. Their matcha ice cream parfait and matcha chocolate are highly recommended.
  4. Nana’s Green Tea
    Nana’s Green Tea has numerous matcha options ranging from drinks to desserts. They have several branches all over Tokyo that provide cozy escapes from the busy city.
  5. Marunouchi Café KAI
    Marunouchi Café KAI is a product of Tully’s and Itoen, a famous café and tea brand in Japan, respectively. Their best seller is the Uji matcha tiramisu sold at 620 per order.